How Italy’s Left Tied Its Fate to a Scandal-Hit Influencer

Chiara Ferragni is Italy’s top influencer, a brand the center-left Democrats have long tried to associate themselves with. But now the fashion blogger and businesswoman is enveloped in scandal, showing the pitfalls of making influencers progressive icons.

Chiara Ferragni and Fedez attend a premiere on September 16, 2019, in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images)

For years, Chiara Ferragni has been Italy’s most-followed influencer. But it only took a pandoro — a sweet Italian Christmas bread — to bring down her multimillion-euro powerhouse. A scandal over funds related to a Ferragni-branded pandoro has now brought the influencer under scrutiny for allegedly perpetrating multiple fraudulent charity schemes and unfair commercial practices.

But looking over the ruins of Ferragni’s empire, something rather strange catches the eye — the debris of the political left. For this story is also about how the influencer’s downfall reflects the ideological weakness of the parties who aligned themselves with her. Right-wing prime minister Giorgia Meloni has certainly noticed that influencers are embarrassing figureheads for progressive politics — but the Democrats haven’t.

Two, Three, Many Insta Stories

Having 29.5 million Instagram followers gives Ferragni a lot of sway. The launch of a festive charity pandoro, with her personal branding, was meant to put this to good use. People thought that Ferragni would give part of the profits to a Turin hospital. Instead, the company producing the dessert, Balocco, had already donated a fixed sum of only €50,000. The rest was profit for Ferragni. Once this was exposed, she tearfully apologized and donated €1 million to the hospital. However, that did not stop the criminal investigation into the case from engulfing all her other initiatives.

Over the years, Ferragni and her rapper husband Fedez have also been in the public eye on more straightforwardly political grounds. They clashed with Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia, and her allies over LGBTQ and abortion rights. In doing so, the couple found protection in the center-left Partito Democratico (PD), Meloni’s main foe, which defended the couple from right-wing attacks.

Like most on the left, the Ferragnez — as the couple’s names are fused — loved to claim moral superiority. So, when the scandal broke, Meloni sought some payback by referring to the news at a party conference. The reaction of the PD inadvertently pushed its ambiguous relationship with the Ferragnez into plain sight.

The Democrats condemned the prime minister for attacking a private citizen. But they also repeatedly thanked the couple for “giving voice” to the party’s battles. But how come the biggest left-wing party in Italy, with roots dating back to both the Italian Communist Party and the Socialists, needed help from a fashion influencer and a rapper to find visibility and respect?

Instead of cutting ties with the Ferragnez, the Democrats defended them once again. Even new leader Elly Schlein, from its leftish flank, told national TV: “If she [Ferragni] did wrong, she’ll pay, but I find the debate surreal and the frontal attack of Meloni shows me that the right-wingers need an enemy a day.” Schlein’s insistence on the unimpeachable good name of the accused, despite all evidence — a practice known as garantismo — was of a type long beloved by Silvio Berlusconi. There was no “if”: the antitrust authority had already found Ferragni guilty of misleading advertising to the point of fining her €1 million. The reaction of the Democrats was so disproportionate that when Meloni returned to the topic again in January, she could say “the Left was reacting as if] I had attacked their Che Guevara.”

“Nobody in the opposition said: Ferragni doesn’t represent us,” said journalist and writer Michele Masneri, an expert on the Ferragni story.

However, the Democrats had blatantly endorsed the couple when it was convenient, to the point of celebrating even the slightest hint of political involvement. Everything the couple did was gold in terms of views on social media — and newspapers and politicians were always trying to hang to their coattails.

Creating a Progressive Hero Out of Instagram Views

In 2022, Ferragni shared an Instagram story with a headline about how abortion was difficult in an Italian region, the Marche, governed by Fratelli d’Italia. Though Ferragni had only commented “Now it is our duty not to let these things happen,” the response from the Democrats and progressive newspapers was ridiculously huge. A La Stampa headline told us Ferragni had written “Keep your hands off abortion,” which she had not (a common practice in Italy is the fabrication of fake quotes in news titles). La Repubblica dedicated not one but six articles over four days to the influencer’s Instagram story and its reactions, to intercept all the internet traffic on the topic. Democratic MPs thanked Ferragni for “putting the Marche [region’s situation] in the spotlight,” as provincial Democratic secretary Francesco Ameli said, though the story Ferragni shared was an investigation by the Guardian. The party was not so interested in having this British liberal newspaper as its champion.

Ferragni is no politician, nor is her role that of a pro-choice advocate. Her record of supporting LGBTQ and women’s rights is often limited to pledges and speeches. The charitable initiatives go hand in hand with broadcasting a luxurious and at times scandalous lifestyle from a high-rise apartment in Milan’s flashy CityLife district.

“The Ferragnez are a perfect symbol for the Right to go after: they are more than radical chic. Their displays of extreme luxury, the fraud investigation: Meloni couldn’t have found better [opponents] even if she invented them,” Masneri said.

Philanthropy From the Window of a Lamborghini

Chiara Ferragni built her empire by starting a fashion blog in 2009, “The Blonde Salad.” Fast forward to 2018, and Chiara, already with her Instagram empire, married the rapper Fedez in Noto, Sicily. Her nuptials were broadcast live on social media by their guests, as per Ferragni’s request, for they had banned TV and tabloids from the wedding. On that occasion, she launched for the first time the hashtag and couple name: #Ferragnez.

Last Thursday, it was widely reported that the couple could be on the brink of divorce. For years their union had continued through a constant ping-pong of backfiring stunts and reparations of exemplary generosity. One such case was the surprise birthday party for Fedez in 2018, arranged by Chiara Ferragni in a supermarket. The festivities ended in an Instagram Live demonstration of how to waste food, as partygoers ravaged the shelves for food to throw. The repentant couple pledged a donation to food banks.

In December 2020, Fedez drove around Milan to deliver €5,000 envelopes to strangers in need that had been selected by his fans, including a delivery rider and a homeless person. Yes, it was like scattering seed for pigeons, especially considering that for his mission, the rapper was driving a Lamborghini worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

The Democrats were surely naive in not understanding the danger that association with such antics posed to the party’s credibility. But the Ferragnez kept receiving praise nonetheless.

Last year, Ferragni’s participation in the country’s top music contest, the Sanremo festival, faced scrutiny for the excessive fee she was granted. Sanremo is a program on national broadcaster RAI, partly funded with public money as people pay a mandatory fee for its output. In response, the influencer pledged to donate the sum she had received to an association for the elimination of violence against women. Progressive media celebrated the act for its bravery. A heartfelt “thank you Chiara” for giving “visibility” to the fight against violence on women came from two prominent Democrats, the former president of lower house of parliament Laura Boldrini and the party president Stefano Bonaccini.

Only journalist and long-time vocal critic of Ferragni, Selvaggia Lucarelli, in the left-wing newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, along with social media strategist Serena Mazzini noticed that the influencer had sported a peculiar outfit at the press conference. It was a “girls supporting girls” jersey, selling for €219 on her online store. Ferragni was receiving praise for resolving a reputational crisis with some subliminal advertising, masked as a donation. The Democrats could instead have acknowledged the countless associations working to put women’s rights in the spotlight.

The issue with Ferragni is that you can never tell what is a publicity stunt, what is business, and what is real compassion. But what should be clear is that, above all, Ferragni is a brand, a €100 million empire. Her commitment to women’s rights or the environment is no less outspoken than her brand activism. Over the years, the Ferragnez jumped on any number of issues trending on Instagram.

Especially for this reason, Ferragni’s incoherence should have mattered to the Left.

Brand activism has a limit, though. “Their values might be left-wing in theory, especially when it comes to human rights, but they have never cared about the closure of a factory or other social issues,” Masneri points out. That is, the influencers wouldn’t commit themselves politically if this might turn out tricky for business purposes.

Social Rights or Brand Activism?

In 2021 at the traditional trade union–organized “big concert” for May Day in Rome, Fedez expressed his solidarity with LGBTQ people. He attacked Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Lega party, for opposing a bill that would have protected such groups from discrimination on grounds of sexual preference. Execs at public broadcaster RAI showing the concert tried to censor Fedez’s speech — and so, the Partito Democratico took his side. But the dispute did not stop there. In a comment on a radio show, then PD leader Enrico Letta thanked the rapper for his bravery and even said he “fully shared his views.” How could he not? Letta’s party had itself proposed the antidiscrimination bill.

That March, another pressing case hit the news: an investigation revealed that Amazon workers were peeing in bottles because of the pressure of their shifts. Their counterparts in Italian warehouses had announced strikes all over the country. What better topic for May Day than this? True — but Fedez was and is the “Amazon regional ambassador.” In December of that same year, a documentary on the couple was due on the Prime streaming platform, and Fedez was hosting the Italian edition of the Prime comedy LOL! Standing with Fedez had the hidden cost of putting a supposed workers’ party hand in hand with an Amazon ambassador amid a strike by warehouse workers.

Though it was not a formal endorsement, it was a de facto alliance. The rapper joined the main proponent of the antidiscrimination bill, Democratic parliamentarian Alessandro Zan, on a couple of Instagram Lives. As the center-left newspaper Domani aptly noted, it looked like Ferragnez was the new “shadow secretary” of the center-left party — a thesis already common among right-wing outlets like Libero and La Verità.

Months later, the antidiscrimination bill died on the floor of the Senate, much to the applause of the right-wing parties. Brand activism had not helped. The support for LGBTQ rights had no use but to Fedez, as he launched a line of genderless fingernail polish. Eventually, even the rapper’s interest for the cause slowly faded. Did people notice? As one researcher tells me, it is often difficult for people to track the inconsistencies of someone trying so hard to capture their attention — each time doubling up their shenanigans to distract attention once more.

However, even fans of the influencers knew that the Ferragnez couple were not good at being consistent. On the red carpet at the 2021 Cannes film festival, Ferragni flaunted a green dress made with recycled Nespresso capsules, for which the media elected her the queen of sustainability. Fast forward a year later, and she was taking a helicopter to have an “aperitivo” on a glacier. The empire is melting now because she did not keep her word on her charitable pledges. “It’s an unprecedented case. Not even the Kardashians had a reputational crisis as bad as theirs,” Masneri says. But it is also an embarrassment for the Democrats.

Of course, not every time Ferragni pledged money was fraudulent. Indeed, she helped many associations in increasing their capacity to do good. But sometimes, it has now been alleged, the donations weren’t real.

Last December, prosecutors in Cuneo and Milan opened an investigation for fraud in the partnership between Ferragni and a confectionary brand, Balocco. In all fairness, journalist Lucarelli had already cast doubt on the pandoro funds and other charity schemes well before the prosecutors did. The investigation on charges of aggravated fraud keeps expanding and now includes multiple other charitable initiatives of the influencer. Among them are Easter eggs that would have supported an association of children with autism, a Ferragni doll sold to sustain a campaign against bullying, and an Oreo capsule collection, for which she had pledged 100 percent of the profits would go to fighting the coronavirus. Oreo and other brands recently denied any role in the charity initiatives.

Soon after the scandal broke, the influencer repented with a video of excuses — but people also noticed she wore a €600 Laneus gray jumpsuit. Newspapers were quick to say this item sold out after the video. But it seems, this time, it was not thanks to Ferragni. It was already out of stock. She might have bought the last one.

Telling Silence

In recent months, three powerful women have tended to monopolize Italian news: the falling influencer Ferragni, the Democratic leader Schlein, and prime minister Meloni. If Ferragni is under investigation, Schlein is equally under scrutiny, but from her own party members, as Italy’s biggest center-left force faces internal strife because of her progressive line and the grievances of its internal Catholic wing.

It does not help that voters are also running out of patience, deeming Schlein’s strategy against Meloni inadequate. A TV debate between the two party leaders is now in the works, though it risks becoming a Meloni show rather than paying off for the opposition. Again, the prime minister is pretty clever in choosing her enemies. The fact that the Democrats were so weak that they needed Ferragni to find visibility hardly makes them look credible. “Meloni was smart in painting the Ferragnez as a left-wing enemy, and the Left did not oppose this misattribution,” Masneri said. Instead, it lingered in a telling silence.

While surely it is unusual for a prime minister to attack a private citizen (directly or not), and though it was a propaganda stunt, it was hard to disagree on the substance. An influencer under investigation for fraud is, indeed, not a great role model. The Partito Democratico did indeed make a fool of itself by defending the couple as progressive heroes.

Pierluigi Bersani, one of the Democrats’ founders and a former party leader, told the press in January that Meloni “should not worry about either Ferragni or Che Guevara” and that the Ferragni scandal was “disgraceful” — adding “we should not pin every problem in Italy on her.” Yet the party’s de facto alliance with an influencer prone to backfiring stunts remained unaddressed, suggesting to an already skeptical electorate that Democrats’ progressivism is as hypocritical as an influencer’s brand activism.

What now for Ferragni? The Italian Regulatory Authority of Telecommunications (AGCOM) announced new rules ascribing influencers the same legal responsibility as publishers in the telecommunication sector. This will also impact donations. Ferragni commented that she was happy with the new rules. Nevertheless, sponsors, including Coca-Cola, are ditching her brand. The antitrust authorities fined her €1 million — but Ferragni’s lawyers are now challenging the measure. Besides, judging by the tabloid headlines about their troubles, the couple will have much to cope with in coming months.